In nearly every conversation regarding free agent acquisitions and trades during this offseason, I’ve said the same thing: “The Orioles don’t need to add power. They’re a team full of homer-happy hitters from both sides of the plate. Sure, trading for Giancarlo Stanton would be exciting and garner a headline on ESPN, but whether it would add to the Orioles’ areas of need is another question. This team already hits a lot of dingers, so what we really need is guys who can get on base and turn our solo shots into two-run homers.”
That argument also got me thinking about the makeup of the Orioles offense. I have stated that the Orioles holding onto power-hitting shortstop JJ Hardy and power-hitting catcher Matt Wieters is nice, but unnecessary given the other home run hitters in the Baltimore lineup. More importantly, do the Orioles need to hit more home runs than everyone else because they score less on their home runs than most teams?
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I’m willing to test my own assumptions1 and entertain the possibility (probability?) that I’m wrong. Maybe the Orioles get plenty of buck for their bang, and just happen to be that much better at banging longballs than anyone else in baseball. I wanted to find out.
The 2013 Baltimore Orioles ranked 1st in the league in home runs and first in the league in RBIs from home runs. That part should make sense; teams that hit more home runs should generally score more runs on homers than teams that hit fewer home runs. After all, you’re guaranteed at least one RBI per home run. Catching the team with the most RBIs from home runs would require a team hitting fewer home runs to consistently make their home runs worth more. Therefore, teams that get on base well and hit a lot of home runs are efficient in their longballs. I would also suggest that teams that do those two things well (which are, like, the basis for 95% of offense in baseball) are also likely to be among the best teams in the league, or at least the best offenses in the league.
To determine home run efficiency, I used Baseball-Reference’s event tracker2 and cataloged the number of home runs each team hit and the number of RBIs scored on those home runs. RBI/HR is easy at that point. The 30 MLB teams, ranked, with the league as a whole included:
As you can see, the Orioles are above-average in scoring runs on home runs, but not by much. The league average is weighted up by Boston, Detroit, and Arizona, who make the most of their home runs. The Rays are particularly interesting because they rank so well – 4th – in team on-base percentage but apparently fail to hit home runs with runners on.
You can find good teams scattered across this graph, visually implying that there is no correlation between winning teams and home run efficiency. In fact, the r value between winning percentage and RBI/HR is 0.300; there is no relationship between the two variables.
So the Orioles do well for themselves on the longball; they’re more efficient than average. I’m happy to say that I’m mistaken here and that the Orioles get plenty out of their home runs. An extra boost in RBI/HR would be nice, but clearly the Orioles are doing enough right to beat most other teams in this metric. Perhaps they really need to stay at this level, ninth in the league with 1.56 RBI/HR, to remain competitive.
To test this, I went through the same process with singles. While this isn’t a perfect match for an ability to push runners around bases, RBIs from singles do require, generally, a team to have a runner on either second or third. RBIs from singles must therefore be a product of a team capable of reaching base twice before making three outs, or are a decent proxy for a team’s ability to not only reach base, but move runners once they’re there. The following graph shows the results and is not as promising:
Here, the Orioles lag behind 22 teams and the Major League average, tallying just 0.188 RBI per single. Again, while this isn’t a perfect indication of team ability, it does speak pretty clearly to the fact that the Orioles are either rarely getting on base ahead of a single or rarely able to single once a man is on base. In both cases, the root of the problem is the same: too few players in the Baltimore lineup are able to consistently reach base.
There are a number of ways to spin this to suggest that the Orioles don’t have to hit more singles – for instance, that they tend to hit doubles or homers in situations with men on base, and that’s why they’re so high there and so low here. Boston, St. Louis, and Cleveland don’t seem to have that issue though.
When viewed in this context, it becomes apparent that the Orioles must hit home runs to score runners, win games, and remain competitive in the toughest division in baseball. The Rays hit 937 singles in 2013 to the Orioles’ 936, but the Rays pushed 0.221 runs across on those singles. Other teams in the same bracket of sheer quantity of singles include the Chicago White Sox, the Milwaukee Brewers, and the San Diego Padres. This speaks to the Rays’ ability to string together hits in bunches and the importance of getting on base in any way possible. The Rays were fourth in team OBP while the other teams listed were ranked around the low 20s. Of course, the Rays were not exactly an offensive powerhouse and their winning percentage was aided by fantastic pitching and great defense.
Worth noting is that Boston and St. Louis, World Series opponents, were among the leaders in the RBI/HR race in 2013 also led the RBI/single race. Top-flight teams do all things well: hit for average, get on base, and blast the longball.
I believe my argument is at least somewhat validated. While the Orioles are more efficient in their home runs than I originally gave them credit for, they fail to consistently reach base in bunches to push runners around the bases. Baltimore then has two options: first, double down on home run production and seek to out-homer every other team by a wide margin, and second, seek a more balanced offense that hits fewer longballs and has a better OBP. To be viewed as perennial contenders, the Orioles will have to abandon, at least partially, their boom-or-bust offensive approach that works so well sometimes and so poorly others in favor of a team built around consistent production. Big hitters might be exciting, but there’s no reason to swap young pitchers for star sluggers. The same home run efficiency can be had by hitting fewer dingers with more men on base.